Forbidden City Concert Hall
From "THE AMERICAN ORGANIST"
Certainly, there has been a
proliferation of organs sailing and flying from the U.S. to Asia in
recent years. For example, a number of Fisks and Noacks sent to Japan,
Reuters and Wicks to Korea, but... China? This country and culture are
among the few, in this ever-shrinking world, that retain an aura of
mystery, and perhaps even
an element of suspicion. For this organbuilder, entering into this
was an object lesson in patience, pride, and friendship.
surprisingly, the new Austin is not the first pipe organ in
Beijing, neither is it the first Austin organ in China. A Rieger-Kloss
reposes at the Beijing Concert Hall, and a brand-new Oberlinger was
just inaugurated at the China National Radio Station. In the 1930s,
Austin shipped two organs to Shanghai (then a Western-settled treaty
port). Both went
into houses of worship (a Christian Science church and a Community
and both were removed and junked at the time of the revolution. (A
tourist guide lists the of ficial religion as atheist). The organ
at the Christian Science church now serves as a storeroom for medical
The Forbidden City Concert Hall
(formerly known as the Beijing Music Hall, Zhongshan Park) is situated
inside the walls of the Forbidden City, among the well-manicured
gardens of Zhongshan Park, directly adjacent to Tiananmen Square. The
old hall was gutted, save for some large stone pillars; the rebuilt
hall was built by raw manpower, with crews working 24 hours a day. The
finished product is breathtaking-thick marble columns with matching
floors, sparkling chandeliers, state-of-the-art audio/video equipment.
The decor is on the modern side, more simple and elegant than ornate.
The acoustics are quite good in spite of the padded seats and aisle
carpeting. There is an abundance of new, shiny, hard surfaces.
The organ is front and center stage on
twelve feet above stage level. A movable console was provided, finished
gleaming Steinway black. The organ case, designed entirely by Austin
Organs Inc., was built of beechwood by the Beijing Fine Furniture
The client, the Beijing Culture Bureau,
was without opinion regarding size or specification. We knew little
except that, when complete, this would be the main performing venue for
the Beijing Symphony Orchestra. Hence, an eclectic stoplist with
symphonic leanings was authored by company President Kimberlee Austin.
The scheme wound up being accepted with no change.
The Culture Bureau sent a contingent to
Hartford; although no contract was signed at that time, it seemed
likely that Austin would be chosen. A group from Hartford then visited
Beijing. After more than two weeks of negotiation meetings, numerous
banquets featuring genuine Chinese delicacies, and innumerable other
unforgettable experiences, the contract detail was finally agreed, at
4:00 A.M. If we'd thought some things had been "lost in the
translation" previously, we had another awakening! Once we discovered
that communication via drawing was the best understood, things went
much more smoothly. The buyers were naturally very curious. It was
nearly impossible to deal with them because of translation losses,
unfamiliarity with the "American way" of doing things, and, last but
not least, organ terminology.
Crated for the ocean voyage, three
40-foot containers left the Hartford loading dock on July 24, 1999. The
scheduled date of arrival in China came and went. After many inquires,
the crates were found in Korea. Finally, they arrived at the wrong port
in China and, a*er the local customs had their way with them, the
crates were eventually delivered to Beijing. They were then unloaded
into the basement of the hall to await the expertise of the
organbuilders. The only things "missing" from the load were a case of
good Scotch and almost all of the 28-lb. reservoir springs. The latter
was not so easily overcome.
In October 1999, the installation team
arrived. Led by newly appointed Chinese rep Alan McNeely, the group
(comprised of Michael Vater, Paul Marchesano, and Hong Kong resident
Robert Hope-Jones) managed magnificently under adverse and challenging
conditions. The job was completed some six weeks later.
In late April 2000, a group from
Hartford returned to Beijing for the inauguration of the instrument.
International concert artist Carol Williams was selected from a large
field of candidates to do the honors. Others in the group had their
work cut out for them: the construction dust had now settled, as well
as the ashes from the recent eruption of a Japanese volcano that had
blown into town. The organ was thick with gritty dirt. Happily (and
predictably), the Austin chest action proved indifferent to the
situation. The few precious hours available for tuning and practice
were shared by technicians and the artist. A few hours were made
available for recording. A compact disc of the organ, played by
Miss WIlliams, will be released on the Melcot label in late 2000 or
Two events were planned, one with
symphony and one organ solo. Both concerts were very well attended, and
the varied program proved quite popular with the audience. It is safe
to say that well over half of the people attending hadn't ever seen or
heard a pipe organ before. Many of the audience members were children,
who appeared to be especially mesmerized by Miss Williams's rendition
of The Washington Post March.
According to Carol Williams, "My very
first visit to China was memorable for a number of reasons. First,
there was the experience of the completely different culture and the
opportunity to perform in Beijing's Forbidden City Concert Hall, which
was only a few minute's walk through the beautiful gardens of Zhongshan
Park and Tiananmen Square. Further, there was the honor of walking on
to the stage to bring to life a brand-new organ, which responded
superbly to the most subtle of registrations and produced truly
magnificent sounds. Yet, because of the lack of an organ tradition in
China, it was difficult to draw up programs that were suitable for such
a historic occasion, one that would be acceptable to an audience that
had not previously savored music played on the King of Instruments. The
choice ultimately became a selection of popular works by Widor, Bach,
Jeremiah Clarke, and Franck, together with a lighter element in the
form of music by Sousa and Joplin. Throughout the visit, there was much
filming plus numerous photographs and interviews with magazines and
television. Certainly a great honor was the opportunity to work with
the Beijing Symphony Orchestra under the expert conducting of the
muchbeloved Tan Lihua to present a fine performance of the Saint-Saens
Third Symphony, a composition that highlighted the excellence of the
Austin organ and its installation."
With the increasing popularity of
Western music and culture in Beijing, it is a most satisfying feeling
to know that the pipe organ will no longer be a joy unknown to the
citizens of the People's Republic of China.
AUSTIN ORGANS INC.
TEXT COPYRIGHT "THE AMERICAN ORGANIST".
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM "THE AMERICAN ORGANIST".